Correspondingly, performance artists throughout the 20th century – many with severe medical conditions – have viscerally responded to this school of discourse. The work of Ron Athey – a gay male sadomasochistic performance artist, staging the implications of HIV on the body – is here seminal. His most impacting work in my opinion was his subversive re-staging of the Martyrdom of St Sebastian in 1990: naked, exposing his tattooed body, Athey was suspended from scaffolding while assistants punctured his skin – including that of his face – with metal pokes disguised as arrows, provoking streams of blood to plummet towards the gallery floor in a decidedly “downwards” fashion. While medieval Scholar Robert Mills – researching the nature of pain and pleasure in hagiographic iconography – shows that medieval “martyrs conceived their bodies as prison-houses from which they desired to escape…denigrating the sensations of the flesh in order to affirm the power of the spirit,” Athey, by contrast, constructs a purposely failed attempt at achieving any form of metaphysical transcendence. The more arrows with which he is punctured in an endeavor to abdicate his own physical frame, the more gravity mocks such transcendence through impelling his physical flesh and blood to smack against the gallery floor. His body is open, yes, but not to anything up above – just to the immanent and fleshy world below.
Contentiously, his “infected” blood often seeps into the space of the viewer, causing outrage, and at times invoking illegality. In opening up his own body to the outside world, others are resultantly susceptible to infection – even if this mode of HIV transmission is near to impossible – and what his works most poignantly expose is why most people like to think of their body as “closed off” from the outside world. A prison may be lonely, but at least it’s secure and safe. Although Foucault partially liberated himself through his phenomenological practice, it was also the cause of his contracting AIDS, and, by extension, of his untimely death.
The performative work of contemporary artist Stelarc, in a similar bid to eject out of his physical frame in the view that the body is inefficient and too susceptible to infection, has adopted a different strategy: to merge body with technology, with the ideological intention to eventually negate it. He has produced a compelling compendium of works, allowing parts of his body to be controlled by users on the Internet, giving himself a robotic third arm, and, most recently, downloading his thoughts through highly complex algorithms into a relatively coherent conversing avatar of himself on the Web. Freaky.
Avatars? Sadomasochism? Technology? God? Where do I stand? Yes, it sucked not being able to walk properly, and yes it is frustrating that our bodies can be so easily threatened by the external world (and even by themselves). Though I don’t think the cyborg route – obliterating corporeality altogether – is the way to go. As susceptible to fault as the body may be, it is also all that is really our own: maybe an avatar wouldn’t have to waste time going to the loo, or wouldn’t contract the flu, but you can’t hug it, smell it, or fuck it either, and that’s a problem for me. I think the only solution to relieve the isolating fact of our bodies isn’t in immateriality (whether we’re talking technologically or spiritually), but to think of the mind as intrinsically fused with each cell of our base, messy, meaty limbs and organs, which themselves open up to base, messy, lowly world. The answer is down here, around us, and if we connect with what Merleau-Ponty famously called the “flesh of the world,”– albeit as safely as we can – we might feel a little less lonely.